Make Knowledge Your Partner in Mail or Telephone Order Shopping

Tips For Shopping By Mail Or Telephone

Shopping by mail or telephone can be a time and energy-saving way to buy almost anything you want. Many direct marketers provide toll-free ordering and quick delivery to meet the needs of their customers.

Whether you are experienced at shopping direct or a beginner, you may occasionally have questions. For instance, who is responsible for return postage on an item of clothing that doesn't fit? How long should it take for gift baskets ordered by mail to be delivered? How can you continue to receive only the catalogs you want without receiving unwanted mailings?

The idea behind these "tips' is to take the guesswork out of shopping by mail or telephone. The Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule (the "30-Day Rule"), which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, was amended, effective March 1, 1994. It now applies to orders placed by telephone as well as through the mail. Telephone orders also include those made by computers, fax machines, and pre-recorded messages.

The Direct Marketing Association, the largest and oldest trade association of direct marketers and mail order firms, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have prepared this booklet to help you when shopping direct.

Keep in mind that common sense is required when shopping by mail or telephone. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

HELPFUL GUIDELINES

Here are some guidelines that will help you when shopping by mail or telephone:

Tip # 1. Before ordering,check the company's return policy.

Tip #2. Keep a record of your order, including the company's name, address, and telephone number; identifying information about the item you purchased; your cancelled check, a copy of your money order, or the credit card used; and the date you placed the order.

Tip #3. Never send cash

Tip #4. If merchandise is damaged, contact the mail order company immediately. If you're asked to return it, get a receipt from the shipper.

Tip #5. If you don't receive your order and your package is lost in transit, the mail order company probably will take responsibility for tracing it.

Tip #6. If your prepaid order isn't shipped when promised, you may cancel the order and get a full refund. If the company didn't give you a shipping date in its solicitation (for example, "allow four to six weeks for shipment"), the company must ship your prepaid order within 30 days of receiving enough information to process it.

Tip #7. As stated, if you cancel a mail order purchase charged on your credit card, the seller must credit your account within one billing cycle.

Tip #8. If you return merchandise to a company, get a return receipt from the shipper.

Tip # 9. When you buy CDs, video or cassette tapes, books, collectibles, etc. by mail through membership in a negative option club or plan, the FTC's Negative Option Rule gives a minimum of 10 days after you receive notification in which to decide if you want to receive the selection. If not, you must notify the seller within that time.

Tip # 10. If you ever get something that you didn't order (and it is not from your negative option or club plan) you can keep it without paying for it. According to the FTC, it's your legal right.

Tip # 11. If you enjoy shopping by mail and telephone, but want to limit the volume of solicitations you receive, ask the companies you do business with not to share your name with not to share your name with other companies. If you wish to significantly reduce the amount of national mail or telephone calls you receive, you can also register for DMA's free name-removal services.

Tip # 1. Before ordering,check the company's return policy.

Keep in mind that if you order carefully, you probably won't need to return the merchandise. Read the advertisement before ordering and be clear about sizes, weights, colors, contents, and other product information. If the order calls for a measurement, be precise.

If what you order is not available, some companies may offer you the option of allowing the company to substitute a product of comparable quality. If you do not want a substitute, be sure you say so clearly on the order form.

Although most companies accept returns or have satisfaction guaranteed policies, be sure of this before placing your order to avoid problems or disappointments if you don't like the item or it doesn't fit. In most cases, you must pay for postage to return an item if it doesn't fit or you changed your mind.

return to top

Tip #2. Keep a record of your order, including the company's name, address, and telephone number; identifying information about the item you purchased; your cancelled check, a copy of your money order, or the credit card used; and the date you placed the order.

Keeping order information is crucial. If you don't, it may be hard to remember where and when you sent or telephoned your order, what you ordered, and the price. If you order by telephone, you may want to keep a copy of the filled-out order form for your records.

return to top

Tip #3. Never send cash through the mail. Send a check or money order or use a credit card. When using credit cards, special credit rules apply.

Sending cash is an unnecessary risk when shopping by mail. Aside from possible theft or loss, you will have no proof of payment if a problem arises. A money order receipt, cancelled check, or monthly credit card statement is written proof of payment. (See Tip #7 for more on credit card purchases.)

return to top

Tip #4. If merchandise is damaged, contact the mail order company immediately. If you're asked to return it, get a receipt from the shipper.

Suppose you order a set of dishes, but several plates arrive broken. You might wonder whether to send back the broken plates or the entire set. Do neither unless the instructions on the package tell you to refuse it if damage is obvious. First, tell the company some dishes were broken on arrival. Provide all the information that identifies your order, including your account and/or order number.

Keep a copy of your letter or a note of your conversation with the company's customer service representative and all items that prove you placed and paid for the order. Then, depending on the company's instructions, return the broken dishes or the entire set. In most cases, the mail order company will pay return postage for damaged merchandise.

return to top

Tip #5. If you don't receive your order and your package is lost in transit, the mail order company probably will take responsibility for tracing it.

If you contact the company and learn that your package was lost in transit, first try to work out a solution with the company. The company should be responsible for tracing the item. If your package cannot be located, most companies will replace it.

Some mail order companies ask you to add a nominal insurance fee to the total cost of your order or they preprint the insurance fee on the order form. This additional fee assures you that the company will replace lost or damaged merchandise immediately, without delays for tracing lost merchandise or filing claims for damaged items. Whether or not you choose to pay the insurance fee should not affect the initial shipment of your order.

return to top

Tip #6. If your prepaid order isn't shipped when promised, you may cancel the order and get a full refund. If the company didn't give you a shipping date in its solicitation (for example, "allow four to six weeks for shipment"), the company must ship your prepaid order within 30 days of receiving enough information to process it.

This is required by the FrC's 30-Day Rule. This requirement applies regardless of which medium was used to advertise the product a catalog or other direct mailing, television, radio, or newspaper. If your order can't be shipped within 30 days, or within the time period specified, the company must let you know. The 30-Day Rule applies to orders for which you have sent partial payment (if the company accepts partial payment) as well as to those fully prepaid.

The Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule does not apply to certain purchases. These include:

In cases where you apply for credit with the mail order company, the company is allowed an extra 20 days (50 days total) to establish the account and ship your merchandise, if it has not otherwise made an express shipment promise.

If you call the company to place an order and are told the merchandise cannot be shipped as quickly as promised in the ad, this becomes the pertinent shipment date if you order the product. If there is a shipping delay after you have placed your order, the seller must notify you and let you cancel the order at no cost, such as by providing a toll-free telephone number or a postage-paid postcard. The company can notify you by calling or writing.

If this delay is for 30 days or less, the seller will assume that you are willing to wait for the merchandise, unless you tell the seller you want to cancel the order. If the delay will be indefinite, longer than 30 days, or if you are notified of an additional further delay, the seller will assume that you want to cancel the order, unless you tell the seller that you are willing to wait.

When you cancel a prepaid order, the company must mail you a refund within seven business days. If the purchase was charged on your credit card, the company must credit your account with in one billing cycle following receipt of your cancellation request. (More on credit card billing in the next Tip.) You should get a full refund, which includes any shipping or handling fee, insurance, or taxes.

return to top

Tip #7. As stated, if you cancel a mail order purchase charged on your credit card, the seller must credit your account within one billing cycle.

The Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule requires this. In addition, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) provides a procedure to help correct or explain apparent credit account billing errors and a means to dispute problem purchases. All billing errors, such as errors in amounts or items charged to your credit card, may be disputed under the FCBA. You may withhold payment for the item disputed and any related finance or other charges during the dispute period. You still must pay for any undisputed part of the bill, including finance charges on the undisputed amount.

To dispute problem purchases, such as defective merchandise, you must meet certain requirements. You may withhold payment for the disputed item and any related finance or other charges if you first make an attempt to resolve the problem with the seller. Also, if the card you used is a bank card or other card not issued by the seller, you can withhold payment only if the purchase exceeds $50, and it occurred within your home state or 100 miles from your billing address.

return to top

Tip #8. If you return merchandise to a company, get a return receipt from the shipper.

Sometimes things get lost in shipment or packages are mislaid. Ask the shipper for a return receipt when you send back an item to a mail order firm. The receipt may cost extra, but you'll have proof that you returned the merchandise.

return to top

Tip # 9. When you buy CDs, video or cassette tapes, books, collectibles, etc. by mail through membership in a negative option club or plan, the FTC's Negative Option Rule gives a minimum of 10 days after you receive notification in which to decide if you want to receive the selection. If not, you must notify the seller within that time.

Unlike a typical mail order purchase, negative option clubs usually work like this: you receive a special introductory offer when you agree to buy a certain number of items. For example, if you agree to an introductory offer of "X" items for $1.00, you also may be agreeing to purchase "Y' selections, within a specified time period.

Promotional material from a negative option club must state the terms of the plan including: (1) how many items you are required to buy in a period of time, (2) how often the company will send you offers, (3) how you can let the company know if you do not want the selection, (4) how to use your right to cancel your membership after fulfilling your obligation, and (5) whether billing charges include shipping and handling.

Suppose you receive the club notice of selection late (with less than 10 days to decide) and receive a selection you didn't order. The Negative Option Rule requires the seller to give you full credit and pay the shipping cost for the items returned. In addition, any special introductory merchandise must be shipped within four weeks of receipt of your order, unless the seller encounters circumstances beyond its control. Each time you receive an announcement about a new selection, the company must enclose a form clearly telling you what to do if you do not want the selection.

return to top

Tip # 10. If you ever get something that you didn't order (and it is not from your negative option or club plan) you can keep it without paying for it. According to the FTC, it's your legal right.

If you ever receive an unordered item, you may feel obligated to pay for it or return it. Don't. If you didn't order it, and it isn't being sent as part of a negative option or club plan, you can keep it for free. If you are billed for merchandise you did not order, advise the company that unless it can demonstrate you ordered it, you will treat it as a gift. If you have any questions about unordered merchandise, contact the FTC.

return to top

Tip # 11. If you enjoy shopping by mail and telephone, but want to limit the volume of solicitations you receive, ask the companies you do business with not to share your name with not to share your name with other companies. If you wish to significantly reduce the amount of national mail or telephone calls you receive, you can also register for DMA's free name-removal services.

In an effort to reach more consumers who may be interested in their products and services, companies rent mailing lists of potential customers. However, most companies, upon your request, will not release your name to others. Look for companies' disclosure notices to this effect in their promotional materials.

In order to reduce the amount of advertising mail you receive at your home address from national marketers, you can send your name and address to: DMA Mail Preference Service, Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512. In order to reduce the number of telephone marketing calls you receive from national marketers at your home, you can send your name, address, and telephone number to: DMA Telephone Preference Service, Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512.

WHERE TO FIND HELP

If you have a problem with a mail order purchase, first contact the company. Provide your account and/or order number, and copies of any other information (such as cancelled checks or credit card statements) that will help identify the problem. Keep your original documents. If you still are not satisfied, contact the organizations listed below for assistance.

Your local Postmaster. Ask for the name and address of the appropriate Postal Inspector in charge, or check the government pages of your telephone book.

Your state or local consumer protection office, listed in the government pages of your telephone book, or the office located nearest the company.

The Better Business Bureau where the company is located.

The book, magazine, or newspaper publisher or broadcast station that carried the advertisement. Publishers and station managers often try to resolve problems between the public and their advertisers.

The FTC. Contact: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580, 202-326-2222, TDD: 202-326-2502. This information helps the FTC in its law enforcement efforts.

This information has been prepared as a public service by the Direct Marketing Association, Inc. in cooperation with the Federal Trade Commission.